Read the text here: Mark 13:24-37
Keep Awake! Be Prepared! The Lord is coming! These themes of the season of Advent are also themes of this passage in the Gospel of Mark. Last week we finished our experience of the Gospel of Matthew with the prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25; this week we begin our year of Mark with a passage from the heart of what is called the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark. Last week Matthew gives us a rather unambiguous teaching on the Last Judgment and the centrality of Faith in Action; this week Mark gives us a very ambiguous look into the future to the Day of the Lord and what our response is to be. What in the world is this all about?
First, a definition is in order - the word: Apocalypse. The word itself comes from a Greek word which literally means “lifting the veil” or “revelation.” The first of these definitions is especially important and relevant for Mark because the climactic event in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus is the crucifixion account in chapter 15 that ends with the tearing of the veil or the curtain in the temple (15:38). This is the veil that separates the holy of holies from the world. And the God of Israel resides in the Holy of Holies, but once the veil is torn God abandons the Holy of Holies and God abandons the Temple and takes up residence in and among God’s people. So Apocalyptic is first and foremost about this question: Where is God Found? And the answer Mark provides: In the Cross of Jesus!
Apocalyptic musings are, of course, all the rage and have been through the 20th century (beginning in the late 19th century) in particular. Predictions of the end of the world in fiery, bloody and graphic detail have been the subject of films, books and (sorry to say) preaching and (bad) theology. This viewpoint has even invaded our foreign policy as a nation, as some support of Israel, among one particular powerful group, is based on this (mis)-reading of the apocalyptic texts of the New Testament. Recently a California pastor announced that the world would end in terror and that the “rapture” would occur on May 21 (oops, I mean October 21). Lots of folks took this prediction seriously. Folks quit jobs, gave away possessions in order to prepare. One cynical group on the internet created a business where they would promise to care for your pets in the event you were “raptured.” They actually made money on this and folks signed up for the service. Tragically one mother even went so far as to murder her children in order to “save” them from the terror to come.
Is this what apocalyptic is all about? In a word – NO! How can all of this predicted terror be squared with the Gospel proclamation that God loves us madly and passionately – so much in fact that he gave us the Son? It can’t. There is not room here for a detailed critique of contemporary apocalyptic. I will simply say that for the most part what has taken hold is a fiction that is completely unbiblical and actually contrary to the Gospel. The doctrine of the “rapture” is both a figment of a warped imagination and an example of really bad bible interpretation. The “Left Behind” books are fiction – and destructive fiction at that, since so many assume they represent the New Testament. The other major problem with contemporary popular apocalyptic is that it is very self-focused. It appeals to the selfish and self-centered parts of our human nature that are mostly concerned with - What's in it for me? How do I make sure that I am covered? If that is really the focus of apocalyptic then how do we square that with a Savior who calls us to care for others and reach out to others in ways that address their real, physical needs? We can't. All of the Gospels and Paul believed that Jesus was coming back right away. But at the same time they also believed that in the meantime Christians were called to work for justice and to care for people and to busy themselves with the work of love. NOT to sit in caves alone, or on rooftops waiting for the Jesus to arrive. In other words - it's not about me - it's about community! The most destructive part of the popular apocalyptic/rapture nonsense is the destruction of community and the resultant turn inwards. The Gospel, the teachings and life of Jesus and the letters of Paul all have a completely different perspective: love through community!
So what does Mark in particular say about Apocalyptic? And how does Mark understand Apocalyptic? First, for Mark there is a two-fold focus: Yes, Mark (and Paul and others in the 1st century) did believe that Jesus would return right away. They were wrong and also misunderstood Jesus’ teaching. But the word “apocalyptic” itself gives us a hint of the second, and more important focus which Mark lifts up – that is: the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus is enthroned in power when he is on the cross. Not only that, but Jesus’ death on the cross also results in the tearing of the veil of the temple. God now is not cooped up in the Holy of Holies. God is now to be found in and among God’s people. And not just in the good, happy or glorious, but rather, more profoundly, in hunger, in loss, in terror and fear, and in death itself. God is present – because of the Cross of Jesus!
Consequently, the call of apocalyptic is NOT to turn inward and focus on our selves and our own selfish needs. But rather it is to turn outward. To see through the eyes of the Gospel that there is need – hunger, unemployment, homelessness, grief, loss, death in our midst and that God is present in those situation THROUGH US. Jesus says – Be Prepared – Keep Awake! How do we do that – through Faith in Action. Through reaching out and caring and loving in Jesus’ name!
“Once asked what he would do if he believed the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther is said to have responded, "I would plant a tree today." We also, confident of God's love and sure of God's promises about the future, can also invest in the present, in the everyday and the ordinary, in the people and causes all around us. For we have God's promise in the cross and resurrection of Christ that in time God will indeed draw all of God's creation not just to an end, but to a good end.” David Lose, Working Preacher